My wife and I both grew up on Merritt Island. She would make “dirt forts” off of Shady Lane in South Merritt Island before the Courtney extension was built. I would ride my bike all over the Island and regularly go fishing at Kiwanis Island and the Humpback bridge.
We have a lot of history on this Island and this Island has a deep rich history of it’s own. Going all the way back 80+ years to a time when Merritt Island was very young as a “civilized” Island and when things were much much simpler. A time when citrus was the driving factor for everything associated with Merritt Island.
I think it is best summed up by a then local Islander… “The Caribbean pine trees on Merritt Island stood so close to each other, a two-wheeled cart drawn by 4 yoke of oxen could make no road through them – many were five feet in diameter and it was almost impossible to drive a nail into the lumber until it was seasoned.
Magnificent flocks of pink curlews (Roseate Spoonbills) could be found in the lagoons. Nearly every homesteader boasted of a bald eagle’s nest on his property. And a little farther south were the egrets, millions of them, although the hunters even then were thinning out the flocks to adorn the society ladies millinery with their plumes.
When the homesteaders came to Merritt Island they built homes with an eye to the weather, location and their pocketbooks. A great majority of the residences were mere unpainted “shacks” with corregated iron roofs and if real fancy, here and there you could find a front porch.
Those early builders who gave a thought to the housewife constructed a back porch for a “pitcher pump,” a hand affair to draw water from a depth of about 20 feet. It did not occur to any of us that we were an underprivileged people. We didn’t even ask the government to reduce the requirements of the homestead code and permit us to “cultivate” but five acres instead of 10. We bought grub hoes and yanked out acres of palmetto roots at the rate of one acre every 30 days per man — and then we had to attempt to plow through the remaining rooty tendrils, harrow and then plow again before we could even plant an orange tree.
There was very little drinking on Merritt Island when we “homesteaded” there. Some of the new settlers made excellent wine from grapefruit juice. . . we would sit around a neighbors one-room shack wishin’ we were back home and would be asked by our host to try some of the “last batch” he had just “aged” … the conversations would dwell on “the war” (World War I, just starting) . . . the earthen jug would make the rounds. . . tin cups and glasses which once held “store bought” Jelly would be used. . . no kick to the stuff. . . until we started back to our own shacks. . . those who had cars were afraid to “go into high” and would creep through the massive Caribbean pines in low gear . . . potent . . . that grapefruit wine spoke softly but with authority .
It is always difficult for me to read of mail delivery in Florida in the early days without harking back to about 1912 when the homesteaders on Merritt Island waited until 9:00 p.m. for the mail to come over the “star route” from Cocoa.
Mail left Courtenay early in the morning and Deveaux Sams, one of the old families on the Island, drove his one-mule “team” south along the east bank of the Indian River. At the village of Merritt he moved his mail, freight and an occasional passenger to a small boat and would putt-putt across the river to Cocoa on the mainland where Flagler’s train came down from Jacksonville every day with the mail.
South of Courtenay about six miles was his first stop to pick up mail. The hamlet was Indianola with about 20 orange growers living there abouts. Here the inhabitants had built a large hall where they held dances every Saturday night. Here also was the winter home of an Ohio newspaper editor, Warren Harding, who later became President of the United States. Harding loved to dance.
I recall that when he ran for Chief Executive a story filled all the papers telling of Harding playing at dice while in Indianola, which was greatly distorted, stating he shot craps with negro boys. You can imagine how we “crackers” felt about the canard. Let’s get back to Deveaux.
After the mail man called his wife at Cocoa, we would help him load his mail, all except the locked first class bags, and small freight and made the mile and a quarter cruise back across the river. It was now past 3:00 o’clock but the mullet were still jumping in front of the boat.
Do you get the picture of the scrawny mule standing in the scrub palmetto at Merritt awaiting the return of Deveaux late that afternoon, pestered by mosquitoes?
Usually the passengers would have a new hair cut after visiting Cocoa and would also suffer from “the bugs”. My father said Merritt Island mosquitoes “could stand flat footed and drink out of a pint cup.”
Deveaux would drive his “team” back north nine miles, through Indianola, where he always stopped to call his wife and tell her he was O.K. and on his way home, and reached Courtenay around 9:00 p.m., where natives and homesteaders from the “backwoods” would be waiting for their mail and news of the outside world. I remember that World War One was five days old before we first heard of the conflict.
Tales of unusually large fish being landed bring to mind many old fishing experiences in south Florida. Did you ever dive with a hook made from an old coat hanger to jerk stone crabs from their holes in rocks? Did you ever “firefish” for flounder with grains or a “gig”?
In the “old days” on Indian River it would sometimes be quite late as we motored by small boat from Cocoa to Courtenay 9 miles north on Merritt Island and if it were after dark we would set up in the bow a pole which held a chicken wire “basket” and in this we would start a fire of
“lightwood” (heart pine) which would burn quite merrily giving off a dense black smoke by the way. As we chugged northward mullet would be attracted by the light and there was seldom a trip we didn’t “catch” from seven to a dozen fine fish weighing up to 4 pounds which leaped at the fire and dropped into our boats. Sport? No. Good eating? Yes.
On Chases’s dock on the Banana River side of Merrit Island many boxes of oranges from the island would be stacked waiting for a steamer to haul them to Jacksonville’s Clyde Line ships which would sail for New York each day. The end of this dock boasted of but four feet of water. Banana River was literally filled with fish back about 1913.
Three or four of us homesteaders would oftimes get clubs from limbs of fallen pine trees on shore and go out on the dock to about three feet of water and string out to the north (fish in flight seldom run under a pier in shallow water) and when we were about six feet apart in the water we would rush toward the shore driving the “red fish” (channel bass) ahead of us and when they reached the shallow waters near shore they would mill around and we were able to pound them over their heads with our clubs.
We could have killed any number we chose but we would take a dozen or more ashore and cutting off about 8 inches of the tender parts of the tail, have a fish-fry that far surpassed any which delight Floridians today”
This great account of Merritt Island back in ’20’s was written by Vernon Lamme. Vernon was a local writer with stints with the Daily Globe, Jacksonville Times – Union, Tampa Tribune, Miami Herald, Cocoa Tribune and later owning The Indian River Star and the Eau Gallie Record.
Thank you for your words Vernon. You certainly captured the spirit of our early Merritt Island persona.